As a father-to-be (twenty-two days until the due date, for those who are counting) I've been wondering a lot about the whole blue-is-for-boys, pink-is-for-girls thing. We don't know whether we're having a girl or a boy, so clothing and interior decorating choices have been driven towards gender-neutral colors, whatever that means. What does that mean? Where do these associations come from? How have we developed gut reactions to pink and blue? And how universal are these associations?
I took my questions to Google, where I did not find them easy to research, for all of the obvious reasons. But I did manage to find a couple of sites offering some commentary.
In archived comments from the bulletin board at Color Matters there are suggestions that the associations became well established in the United States in the 1950s, but that historically in religious and other images the colors were often associated the other way around: blue with femininity and the Virgin Mary, and red with masculinity and ferocity. (Linguists will also note one comment about the evolving meaning of color names themselves.)
More details turned up at Historical Boys' Clothing in an article about the color pink. The article presents some interesting citations: the Ladies Home Journal of June 1918 is cited therein asserting that "pink [is] a more decided and stronger color [and] more suitable for the boy," while "blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is pertier for the girl." Four years earlier the Sunday Sentinel [Newspaper] recommended pink for boys and blue for girls, "if you are a follower of convention." Pink sailor suits were apparently common for boys in the early twentieth century, but by the middle of the century Emily Post demanded the modern color associations (the article's author did not research the matter of when this prescription made into Etiquette; if someone out there knows, please enlighten us!). My favorite citation is that of Louisa May Alcott who in 1869 wrote in Little Women that a mother of twins "put a blue ribbon on the boy and a pink on the girl, French fashion, so you can always tell them apart." Could Little Women's popularity be the source of the contemporary style?
It's clearly useful when a child is very young to be able to identify its gender from its clothing if not from its face; this can avoid some awkward social moments. But it only works if the language of color is shared by parents and those they meet. Clearly boy/blue and girl/pink are relatively recent innovations (or at least recent fashions) in America, which nixes the idea that there might be anything universal at the root of all this. If I take my child overseas will pink or blue clothes distinguish its gender? I would be particularly interested in your comments!